Sun. Sep 25th, 2022

This column has taken some fairly outsider positions in the past. Back in the opening round, I took the Broncos to defeat Souths. I took Parra to win away at Penrith. I had the Tigers over Souths, believe it or not.

We actually planned a column on how the Bulldogs would defeat the Roosters and then, to our eternal shame, decided to do something else that day. You’ll have to take my word for that, but I’m a good Catholic boy: I swear it’s true. I have the gambling receipts.

Souths are $3.25 with our mates at PlayUp to make it to the Grand Final, so not as long odds as some of those, but honestly: they might as well be. This is their final boss.

The Panthers have had a week off, they are missing just one player – Taylan May, suspended and injured – and Souths are the opposite, with their best forward, Tom Burgess, their main interchange option, Siliva Havili and their all-time top tryscorer, Alex Johnston, out.

Rugby league is a game of systems and execution, and the good news for Souths is that their system is strong. Styles make fights, as they say, and Souths’ style has had success against the Panthers’ style in the very recent past.

Trouble is that the Panthers are the final boss of grinding footy. The Bunnies beat Parra and the Cowboys, both also grinders, quite conclusively.

But when they faced Penrith, though I would argue they had a system win (explanation here), they ultimately lost the game. Such are the margins.

That was a broadly full strength Souths against a weaker Panthers, too. This will be different. Systems are only as good as their components.

But the Bunnies can have hope. They have done their best work when their backs were against the wall and they backed themselves. They steered into the skid. Now, that will be more important than ever. Here’s how they can do it.

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It’s Now Or Never

Jason Demetriou will know in his heart of hearts that his team cannot and will not defeat the Panthers in a traditional preliminary final style of game. Parramatta, who are a lot better at it, tried and lost badly.

Kicking to corners, completing high and attempting to grind is doing exactly what your opponent wants you to do.

Running traffic at Charlie Staines and Izack Tago, early and often, and forcing Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai to make a lot of tackles is what Penrith don’t want.

South Sydney are perhaps the only team to truly trouble Penrith stylistically this year.

Parra beat them, twice, but they did so largely in a manner that was similar to the way that the Panthers play, with a forwards battle and long kicking. They out-Penrithed Penrith.

The way that the Bunnies troubled them was totally different. It was based on swift ball movement – ‘backing their skills’ as Demetriou calls it – and beating the pace of the line speed.

This was built on Latrell Mitchell playing the line early in the tackle count, often in their own end. He had four line break assists in the first half alone, with Isaiah Tass – one man out – getting two more.

If the goal from Souths is to go set for set, it won’t work and they will gradually be worn down. Their middle, especially without Burgess from the start and Havili joining from the bench, will struggle.

They need to play the game on their terms, and if that means playing a game of basketball for a bit, especially early on, then so be it. If it works, they will move down the field, turn the Panthers around and, hopefully, generate points.

There’s a good example of this in the 9th minute of their clash in August. Alex Johnston fields a kick within yards of his line and gets smashed. Campbell Graham takes a hrad, hard carry and gets smashed again.

There’s another hit up to the 20m line, and they’ve moved the ball from the left corner to the right tramline in three plays.

Quick as a flash, they spread back left through the lock, Cam Murray, to Cody Walker to Mitchell to Tass and then Johnston, who hacks over and nearly scores at the corner. Pinned in to nearly scoring in 100m and four plays. It’s that adventure that we need to see again.

That first half that night was as good an example of this style as possible. Souths completed *spits on floor* at 67%, which any fule no is bad.

Except they had 21 sets to complete because they forced penalties, restarts and drop outs, not to mention their seven line breaks to one.

Penrith completed at 88% but only had 17 sets, so in practice their advantage was negligible. Souths totally threw them off their game and by the end of the half, the Panthers were knackered.

This was a Penrith without Cleary and Luai, of course, so the attack will be better. But the issues South Sydney caused weren’t anything to do with the halves. They beat the line speed. They can do that again. They need to.

A little less conversation

Penrith are the masters of transition play. They end their sets the best, with Nathan Cleary invariably kicking well, and they start them superbly through excellent back three yardage work.

Because they start so well, their forwards are fresher to take the carries that they get later in the set, and – more importantly – to lead the line speed in defence.

The Bunnies are far from the best in transition. What they got results from in their late season clash with Penrith was their ability to change the conversation away from a grind and throw the Panthers off their game.

In recent weeks, Souths have really leaned into this. On that night at Homebush, Mitchell threw some frankly bonkers passes straight from catching kicks that changed the direction of the attack. Against the Roosters, he kicked one straight back over the chasers heads.

It’s been noticeable that the Bunnies have, on several occasions, attacked on play one or even play zero after errors, looking to immediately capitalise on broken play, which is where (see above) their superior ball skills can come into play.

This will necessitate periods of extended defensive work, because they will likely commit errors and hand the ball over. Souths’ defence has improved out of sight from midseason and will need to be at its best to cope with what the Panthers can throw with Cleary and Luai in the side.

I’ve seen enough of late – especially against the Roosters – to make me believe that this is possible. If Lachlan Ilias can continue his strong tackling, if Richie Kennar can slip into position and if they can avoid the simple mistakes of earlier in the year, they’re a chance.

Damien Cook, one of the best kick pressurers in the league, will have to do a lot of it. His effort plays in the middle will be crucial. The markers will have to work overtime in putting inside pressure on Isaah Yeo with the ball and Cleary with the boot.

This defence can empower the Bunnies to play with more abandon in attack. It’s a high risk, high reward strategy but one that Souths, in my opinion at least, have to try. This is not the time to play it safe.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

A little more action, please

This column is not a massive believer in the power of individuals in a weak-link team sport, but it’s hard to ignore the huge, lurking Latrell factor.

Much has been made of Mitchell’s impact or lack thereof in recent weeks, mostly from people doing that bent over Spongebob meme and talking about run metres.

I prefer The Simpsons, so instead will condescendingly tap the sign and tell you that run metres are really only one way of measuring fullback contributions, and a really bad way if the fullback in question is Latrell Mitchell.

Mitchell is the best attacking fullback in the NRL and averages 87m running. Ryan Papenhuyzen, the second best, averages 101m.

Dylan Edwards averages 188m but that’s really not the point, because he runs a lot more and they average about the same metres per run. If Mitchell, his side’s best creative outlet, was doing the dog work that Edwards does, something has gone wrong for South Sydney.

Latrell does need to run hard, and probably more, but not like Edwards does. Latrell currently averages 25 touches per game and nine runs, three of which are kick returns.

If Souths are to win, those numbers probably needs to be a little higher, because they will have to get the ball into his hands very frequently.

With Alex Johnston now out, Richie Kennar will go to a wing and, for what it’s worth, he might have a stronger carry than AJ. Johnston is an elite finisher but a poor returner so it might not be a huge loss in that regard.

For Latrell, that might change his dynamic. The Roosters nullified him in the last game of the regular season by making him run the footy back and belting him every time. The Panthers might well try the same.

If Mitchell can minimise the amount of set starting and maximise the amount of good ball running, Souths are onto a winner. He is one of the most efficient players in the world on a per-touch production level. More touches, in the right places, and Latrell steals the show.

By admin

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